Death, Decay and Disease in Hamlet

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Death, Decay and Disease in Hamlet  

 Within ‘Hamlet’, Shakespeare makes a number of references to Denmark's degraded state due to the deceit that lies within. These references are made by Hamlet, Horatio as well as the apparition, thus enforcing the strong theme of death, decay and disease

As aforementioned Hamlets makes a number of references to Denmark. Preceding the death of his father and the marriage of his mother, his mental state begins to fall into demise . Although he appears to not have much courage at first, his focus remains on avenging his father whose murder is described as being "most foul." As noted in one of  Hamlet's first soliloquies, his downward spiral has already began and already he is  contemplating suicide; "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew (I, II, 130)" and "seems to me all the uses of this world... Things rank and gross in nature posses it merely (I, II, 136)." To be degrading to be thinking of imagery including flesh melting shows that Hamlet is not in the state that he ought to be in.  Furthermore Shakespeare encourages us to empathize with these emotions by using such rich descriptions. 

It could be perhaps argued that Hamlet's state of mind which has become debased, but this is until Horatio claims, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (I, IV, 90)." The notion of festering carrion being a metaphor for King Hamlets death epitomizes this notion. The ghost furthers this idea by stating at the moment of his death, his skin became "Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust all my smooth body (I, V, 72)." This attempts the elucidate on the feeling of death almost like becoming like a leper before death finally takes its toll.

Decay also becomes a strong theme weighing heavily on Hamlet's mind. Whilst talking to Polonius he says, "For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion (II, II, 182)." Although Polonius' appears not to notice this, we can see the constant references to death being made by Shakespeare’s tools, i.e. the characters.  Moreover associated with Shakespeare's use of decay and disease imagery is his use of horror, "Roasted in wrath and fire thus o'ersized with coagulate gore (II, II, 431)," is a perfect example of this.

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"Death, Decay and Disease in Hamlet." 28 Mar 2017

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Another unpleasant quotation with reference to disease is this harsh yet ironic statement stated to Ophelia by Hamlet; ‘If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry (III, I, 133)."

Poison is the third example of imagery that Shakespeare frequently uses. It is mentioned a number of  times in referring to Claudius but it is also used when referring to Denmark's state, "Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steeped against Fortune's state would treason have pronounced (II, II, 480)."

The use of irony and even retributive justice in the play becomes apparent when Claudius uses poison to kill King Hamlet and in the end, this same poison kills him, as well as his wife, Laertes and Hamlet, "Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane, drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother (V, 11, 302-304)." It is the use of poison that wraps up the story and unravels the denouement.

He does it in both poetic and non-poetic manners and both emphasize the atmosphere and emotion of the play. Although sometimes harsh, almost all the actors refer to one of these themes at one point or another and Shakespeare makes the imagery so descriptive that we can visualize the imagery right in front of us.


Works Cited and Consulted:

Bodkin, Maud. Death and Decay in Hamlet  Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1934.

Watson, Robert N. 1990. 'Giving up the Ghost in a World of Decay: Hamlet, Revenge and Denial.' Renaissance Drama 21:199-223.

Shakespeare, William. The Tradegy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark.  New York: Washington Square Press, 1992

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